What Saul Goodman can teach Westeros and Middle Earth about prequel television

click to enlarge What Saul Goodman can teach Westeros and Middle Earth about prequel television
Better Call Saul sets a high bar for prequel TV series.

To begin with, the writers of The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon had a huge problem. They're prequels. And anytime you write a prequel, especially prequels to two of the most famous fantasy series of all time — The Lord of the Rings and Game of Thrones — you have an inherent problem: You start with your ending already written. Even setting a series hundreds or thousands of years before your original series doesn't get away from the spoiler issues.

We already know Targaryens go crazy — it's in their incest-addled blood. We already know that Galadriel and Elrond end up chilling with Bilbo and Frodo at the Grey Havens. They obviously don't die or turn permanently evil.

There's this fallacy out there that making great TV is all about having a plan, having an endpoint in mind, and gradually working your way toward it by hitting a preplanned plot outline.

But most experienced TV writers — and critics — know the opposite is true. Great TV writing rooms, like on shows like Breaking Bad, are agile. They see what isn't working, and they fix it. They realize one plotline is dragging — like the silent Salamanca cousins stalking teacher-turned-meth-chef Walter White, and they cut it short. They see what is working, and they decide, "Hey, maybe we shouldn't kill this Jesse Pinkman fellow off so quickly."

By already having the major plotlines etched into stone — literal stone in the case of some fantasy epics — you take away that power. The Breaking Bad prequel, Better Call Saul, which just finished its run brilliantly this year, showcased both the peril of prequel television and the prescription for fixing it.

Turning the tale of Breaking Bad's con-artist attorney into a full series seemed like a loser move. And yet, Better Call Saul was, in many moments, better than Breaking Bad.

Gus Fring and Mike Ehrmantraut both begin Better Call Saul as the same characters they were in Breaking Bad. They begin Better Call Saul as serious, hypercompetent and morally compromised, and they finish their stints on Breaking Bad as serious, hypercompetent and morally compromised. They're treading water.

We get to see exactly how Gus Fring built his meth superlab, but we're just filling in backstories. And backstories don't have the same capacity to surprise as front-stories.

Yet, Saul Goodman was different. How do you make the backstory of Saul Goodman, a shady, scam-a-minute lawyer, surprising? To start with, don't make it about Saul Goodman. Make it about Jimmy McGill, the flesh and blood beneath Saul Goodman's veneer of zany sleaze. And instead of having him "break bad" right away, have him go the other direction initially — show him becoming a better person. Give him a contemptuous brother with whom he has a complicated relationship. Give him a love interest whose fate was never mentioned in Breaking Bad. Make them all their own characters as deep — or even deeper — than any character in Breaking Bad.

In other words, turn it less into a prequel — explaining how Han Solo got his name, or where Indy got his hat — and much more into a spinoff. Take Frasier from Cheers, give him a family and friends, and turn him into Frasier from Frasier.

Best of all, at the end, skip beyond the original story of Breaking Bad and show what happens to Saul. Show the full-arc tragedy and even a kind of redemption for the characters involved.

And if we're going to care about Teen Elrond or Proto-Daenerys, The Rings of Power and House of the Dragon need to pull a similar move. ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...